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Talking Point – Sharing Email Addresses

Sharing Email Addresses – the electronic STD (Sharing Transmitted Data) of the 1990s

When email became mainstream for everyday users (back in the late 1990s or thereabouts) people quickly realized they’d need to set up an email account with an internet service provider (ISP) in order to participate in this new age of electronic communication. We were actively encouraged to do so by the telcos of the time – Saturn, Telstra, Telecom, Bell South/Vodafone, Ihug, Orcon, AOL, Compuserve and others – and we were charged for the privilege by most, if not all of them. Fortunately, in the 2000s along came a host of providers offering free email accounts - Outlook, Windowslive, Gmail, iCloud, Yahoo - to name a few.

For some unknown reason which still mystifies us – whether due to cost, or a fear or ignorance of using technology, or the darker side of motivation, that is being in control or FOMO (fear of missing out) – many couples in life relationships set up one internet account for both relationship partners. They looked like this – mum.dad@xtra, george.mildred@bt, mork.mindy@aol – you get the drift. They shared the email account access and as was quickly discovered, anyone emailing one of the account holders was really emailing both, as there was no way of knowing (or separating) who got to read the email. It ensured that you didn’t write private stuff if you didn’t want the other account holder to know, and you most certainly didn’t use it to RSVP to the other person’s surprise birthday party!

As technology has moved on and email has become a way of life for pretty much all of us, we now know a lot more about how email works and we just take it in our stride. Most people have an email account at work that is dedicated to them or their role, and I doubt anyone shares an email account with their colleagues in the workplace. It’s a bit like sharing a toothbrush – yuk.

So why do so many couples still share one email account between them for their personal emails? I’m guessing it’s because they can’t be bothered setting up individual accounts, or it’s perceived as too difficult to do (like changing banks). And there’s probably no one encouraging them to do so.

As online login processes requiring an email address as the user ID, with a password that is unique/specific/dedicated to the email address, the email account is in reality only available to, or for, one person.

With the New Zealand Government’s ‘Real Me’ initiative, where New Zealanders can access and use online services offered by both government and the private sector, and which was created “to build trust and confidence by adhering to New Zealand Government security, identity and privacy legislation”, it’s pretty obvious that we’re heading to a more secure future in terms of identity and information.

Some organisations get around the problem of shared email accounts by using user names as part of the login process, but this can cause problems of its own as it’s another thing for users to have to remember and another thing for them to get wrong. On the positive side, using a user name does provide another step in the login validation process, however most organisations are moving away from using user names and are instead using email addresses as the user name.

So, my question is “How will those sharing an email address be able to use online services that use an email address as the user name, if they want to have an individual account (that is, not sharing it with someone else)?”. How do two people have individual accounts with the same organisation (supplier), for example their mobile phone provider, where an account must have only one email address and password which is dedicated to that account – it’s impossible to have two accounts with a shared email address as the email address is used to verify proof of identity. If you don’t believe me, try setting up an account using an email address as the user name ID if there’s already an account set up using the same email address.

Sure, accounts for online shopping, some utility providers (though not mobile phone companies), etc can be accessed by both partners sharing an email address and password, though the transactions are also shared (causing real problems if you shop online for your partner’s birthday presents or you want to book online a surprise celebration dinner for them) but when it comes to some important websites like medical/health management websites, it’s a very different story.

From a website administrator’s position, sharing one email account between two people is a nightmare, especially when there are login issues (which unfortunately do occur from time to time) and it becomes difficult and time consuming to find out where the actual problem occurred.

Back in 2015 Google declared that any websites that were not mobile-friendly wouldn’t feature prominently in Google searches undertaken on mobile phones or devices and this resulted in a flurry of organisations rushing to get their websites mobile-friendly. Maybe we need a similar initiative for people who share email accounts to set up individual accounts while there is still time. Or we could just wait until natural attrition (incapacity or death) sorts out the problem for us.

If you’d like to discuss this further contact us@expert.services

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